The Russian information war challenge to the West is visible in a single advertisement from an organization called ‘USA Really. Wake Up Americans”.
The ad falsely claims that American citizens can’t “cannot receive objective and independent information about events occurring on the territory of America and throughout the world.”
“USA Really. Wake Up Americans” is run by Federal News Agency (FAN), a private-sector operation headed by an oligarch working on a contract basis with the Kremlin. It’s very “gig-economy” and modern. It’s also very doubtful FAN exists to provide citizens of Western democracies with the factual information they need for their government to function properly.
What interesting, though, is the job advertisement seeking English-speaking journalists.
“In May 2018, the information agency ‘USA Really, Wake Up Americans’ will start its operations, it will focus on promoting information and problems that are hushed up by major American publications.
“We invite English-speaking journalists and authors to work on the project – send your CVs to america@XXXX.XX with the subject “Wake up, America”.
This offer for work exposes the challenge for the West in the time when Russia is seeking information dominance over Western nations. Western democracy currently has scant philosophical or rhetorical defense for what it’s facing online. There is likely nothing that makes doing such work illegal. If there a way, given the many-to-many nature of the internet, along with its culture of anonymity, it would be almost impossible to enforce.
If you don’t think the West is already on the back foot, consider how many “smart” people here accepted the Russian/Republican view of foreign election meddling after 2016: “The US has done it,” they said. “Everyone does it.” Pure whataboutism.
Then, in 2017 when Trump president lobs missiles at Syria’s chemical weapons labs, so many of these same people in the West bought the line that the West has no authority to meddle in the internal affairs of Syria.
Few batted an eye at this inconsistency – probably also for the fact that these same people have been overwhelmed by the flurry of misinformation around Trump. Today, Western public opinion is like clay in the hands of Russian-backed Western opinion-makers. The same opinion-makers extending their speech into our world.
And so we have this brazen advertisement…
How many journalists – or would-be journalists in this environment – would answer USA Really’s call? I fear a good few would. The rationale could come in many flavors: laid off journalists looking to maintain their skills; would-be journalists wanting a kind of legitimacy, (a tactic used by RT). Yet another, is to appeal to would-be journalists’ sense that they have been unfairly hard-done by the industry, or the economy, or “the system”.
What sense of loyalty, of geopolitical awareness, what firm understanding of the Big Picture would stop these journalists for collaborating with the Kremlin-linked disinfo house?
There is nothing in the ideology of free-market fundamentalism or globalization that provides an answer that would dissuade these journalists from accepting Russian money to become a tool of the Kremlin.
This is the fundamental weakness of the West at this time.
Worse, money may not be the major incentive. Simple ideological certainty, simplicity and the ability to make sense of the world may trump remuneration. Just look at the sad cases of Andrew Anglin or Richard Spencer.
Decades of globalization have made no provision for the defense of the ideals of liberal democracy. Worse, there are more than a few strains of Western thinking that seems to embrace a ‘scrap it all’ mindset.
So what prevents a freelancer from the West from accepting money for work that ultimately tears apart the West?
Western ideas and institutions stand philosophically undefended and exposed on a network that connects right back the Kremlin – and to Beijing. The quality of philosophical debate in the defense of democracy has been degraded by the dominant neoliberal ideologies of the West, the passage of time, the fading memory of the Cold War, and general ignorance made worse by underfunded public education, particularly in the US.
And so Westerners can be snookered by overly-broad and overly simplified applications of ideas like “free speech”. In fact, once, when FAN was deindexed by Google, Russian regulators cried ‘free speech’ and it was reinstated.
But fundamentally not all things are not equal. The defense of democracy from illiberal information war efforts as well as from populist ideologues is going to take a new understanding of the value of truthful information in a society.
That knowledge should be hardwired right into the ideas of journalism in a democracy.
It’s also going to require a reevaluation of the ideologies in the West that “look the other way” as fellow Western journalists serve as tools of corruption and disruption of our shared political system. These are going to be tough conversations.
If and when the West can articulate a vision (unfortunately, without White House input) for a vital democracy online, one that can successfully answer the question why no democratic Westerners should participate in USA Really, we will be much better able to defend the conversation needed to keep our system functional in the new century.